Ilene Chaiken on the gay women of “Empire” and the possible reincarnation of “The L Word”

Ilene Chaiken has been successful as the showrunner of Fox’s hit musical series Empire, which is in production on its second season right now. The out writer/producer is well-known as the creator of The L Wordand the jump to very lesbian-friendly soap makes a lot of sense, and Empire creator Lee Daniels leaves a lot of the show’s story up to Ilene. Perhaps that’s why there have been at least three queer female characters in the first season, and another huge one to follow with the addition of Marisa Tomei‘s lesbian billionaire character, Mimi, in Season 2.



We spoke with Ilene about the new season of Empire and the possibility of an L Word reboot in the future. The new trailer came out today and we saw a little bit of Marisa Tomei.

Ilene Chaiken: Marisa Tomei, meaning the lesbian billionaire?

AE: Yes, exactly. I’m so excited. Tell me all about her.

IC: I think I might take credit for it. She plays a really important role in the melodrama of Season 2. She’s a fabulous character. We’ve having loads of fun with her. But she also plays an important role in the soap, in the treachery, in the Cookie vs. Lucious and in the fate of Empire.


AE: So how do we know she’s a lesbian, outside of a press release?

IC: Apart from the way she looks at Cookie? And the way she looks at Anika. We learn it pretty definitively in the opening episode and I won’t tell you how. But it’s not subtle.


AE: Is she single?

IC: That remains to be seen.


AE: Is she a womanizer?

IC: Yes, she’s a womanizer. She and Lucious might turn out to have similar taste in women.


AE: Is there a possibility Cookie could be interested in women?

IC: Well, I would say this: Taraji, last seasonwe told a story in which we stated Lucious was the only man Cookie had ever slept with, which we all loved and embraced. But Taraji made the point, that doesn’t mean she hasn’t slept with anybody else other than Lucious. She was in prison for 17 years. I think if you were to talk to Taraji about it, she would absolutely say “Cookie was in prison for 17 years.”


AE: I know Empire was also casting a young lesbian rapper for the show.

IC: You know, I don’t know why the casting announcement described her as a lesbian. We were casting a young rapper that was really hot. Her presentation would certainly be butch but that she is a lesbian isn’t important to story.


AE: Who did you end up casting?

IC: We cast a rapper named Breezy. She’s from Philadelphia. She’s great. She’s really amazing. Some amazing, amazing women auditioned for the role, some of whom were precluded just because the character really has to be young.


AE: What can you say about Tiana on Season 2?

IC: Tiana is back. She’s part of the ensemble. She’s a main cast member. The story is about the Lyon family. They get a lot more time on camera than any of the secondary series regulars, but she’s really in the mix now. She’s part of the family.


AE: The secondary characters the ones I always have to ask about because, outside of shows like The L Word, most of the queer women exist on the periphery.

IC: So sad. We really need to fix that.


AE: How do you think we can? There are shows like Orange is the New Black and Transparent that have a lot of the queer characters that are part of the main cast. And Empire too, of course, but mostly male-focused. There are a lot of queer women in Hollywood, but they’re not all writing queer women into their shows.

IC: I don’t really know how to answer that other than we need another show. When I get around to doing another show, there’s a good chance that it will feature and star a gay female character. That’s what I like to do. It’s not a given, but…


AE: Who else is going to do it? Is it our responsibility?

IC: I think that there’s some other people that can do it and I hope that there are some writers coming up that want to tell their stories, too, from another point of view.


AE: Do you think it’s a network thing? Are they not receptive to those kinds of shows?

IC: I think there’s still a little bit of network thing, but it’s much different and it wasn’t after The L Word. After The L Word, I thought there would be more openness and I think there was a feeling of, “No, nothat’s been done already.” But I do think that, in the last couple of years, the world has really changed and I think if somebody pitches a great show that happens to star a lesbian character or that’s about lesbian characters, it would be embraced if it’s a great show.


AE: At this point, it can’t just be a show “about lesbians.” 

IC: That’s a conversation I even end up having when we talk about possibly rebooting The L Word. Okay, but why? I’d love to, but we really need a compelling reason to do it.

The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender (LGBT) Community Center 25th

AE: The fans are there, that’s for sure. Do you think it could work? Do you ever visualize a storyline that could bring back some of the characters?

IC: Yeah! I think about it often. I can’t do it right now, but if I were to bring back The L Word, I don’t know what the story would be exactly, or what the compelling round-out question would be, but I know that it would feature some of the original cast and a lot of new characters.

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AE: How often are you still asked who killed Jenny Schecter?

IC: So often! Far too often.


AE: You did it to yourself! [laughs] So, the only other queer woman on Empire, at this point, is Chicken, played by AzMarie. How involved is she this season?

IC: She’s much bigger in this season than she was last year. She’s a DJ and she’ll make more music this year and she just has more of a presence. She doesn’t have her own story, but she has much more of a presence in Hakim’s world and more time on camera. She’s his main guy.


AE: When you’re in the writers’ room pitching a new female character, is it a given that she could be interested in women?

IC: Not all the time, but some of the times it just come up as, “Let’s make her a lesbian! That’s scandalous!” And it’s just ridiculous at this point. Not everybody can sleep with everybody, and not every female character can have a lesbian affair. It’s just always tempting.